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SUMO: 2017 Aki Basho (Day 10)

It’s Day 10 of the Aki Basho, and we have only one rikishi atop the leaderboard with an 8–1 record—ozeki Goeido. The other two co-leaders, M3 Onosho and M12 Daishomaru, both lost yesterday dropping them into a tie with M3 Chiyotairyu and M9 Takanoiwa for second place.

Truth be told, Goeido did not look great in his victory. He lost the tachi-ai [initial charge] to M2 Aoiyama, but the big Bulgarian is just back from having missed the first seven days of the basho with an injured left knee. After Goeido got shoved back, he made a jog to the left just as Aoiyama reached for the back of his head (presumably to try a slap down) and Aoiyama’s knee left him unable to catch his balance. Goeido still looked a little dazed as Aoiyama fell to the ground of his own accord. So while it’s a definite win for the ozeki, it’s hard to call it much of a victory . . . and it’s hard to think that it provided much boost to his confidence.

One thing it DID provide was Goeido’s eighth win, making him kachi-koshi [majority of wins] and eliminating his kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] status. No matter how the rest of this tournament goes, Goeido will still be an ozeki in November.

Onosho was a little too overconfident in his match against fellow M3 Chiyotairyu. Actually, for the first time, he looked the way I kind of expected him to be at the beginning of the basho—a 21-year-old rikishi who’s just a little out of his depth. Chiyotairyu didn’t do anything that the higher ranked rikishi didn’t do in earlier matches, it just seemed that Onosho had decided the match result was a foregone conclusion, and so he got sloppy. I actually chuckled out loud at the perplexed look on his face as he got up and wiped off the clay. 

At the end of today we’ll be two-thirds of the way through the basho . . . and at the moment Goeido is in the driver’s seat. He is alone in the lead, and he’s only has to face one more rikishi ranked equal to or above him (that’s yokozuna Harumafuji, who he’ll fight on Sunday). But he’s got some tough competitors headed his way over the next few days—komusubi Tochiozan today and sekiwake Mitakeumi tomorrow—so there’s still a lot of uncertainty left in this tournament.

Let’s look at today’s big matches.

M8 Chiyoshoma (3–6) vs. M12 Daishomaru (7–2)—Having dropped out of his tie for the lead with yesterday’s loss to Takarafuji, Daishomaru now must get back to his winning ways if he wants to stay in the hunt for the yusho [tournament championship]. However, the way he lost proved that he’s nowhere near as strong, patient, or skilled as his performance so far would make it seem . . . he just was on a tear. Can he get back on it again? (3:45)
M10 Ishiura (2–7) vs. M8 Takarafuji (6–3)
—In his win over Daishomaru yesterday, Takarafuji proved that he’s stronger than other rikishi his size (and even a little bigger). He’s a tough bulldog of a fighter with lots of experience fighting against top-level competition. Meanwhile, Ishiura has been having trouble this basho. It seems like folks have gotten wise to his favorite moves and he’s having trouble sneaking past their defenses. He’s going to have to go back to the heya [training stable] (or watch more videos of earlier diminutive rikishi, like Mainoumi) and figure out some new tactics. Still, he’s fast and clever, and never should be underestimated. (4:15)
M6 Ichinojo (5–4) vs. M9 Takanoiwa (7–2)—Takanoiwa never had a slice of the lead in this tournament, but he’s been quietly putting together an impressive performance and has been one win behind the leaders pretty much the whole way. On the other hand, Ichinojo seems to have reverted to the man who has no maneuvers or tactics other than being huge and nearly impossible to move. Don’t get me wrong, those tactics can win when your opponent is impatient or lacks the pure strength to carry off a victory. (6:50)
M1 Tochinoshin (1–8) vs. M3 Chiyotairyu (7–2)—Chiyotairyu is another rikishi who has trailed the leaders the whole way and seems to be lurking in wait of his chance to strike. Luckily for him, Tochinoshin’s right knee is so bad that he can barely move himself around the ring. Much though I hate to admit it, Tochinoshin is unlikely to get ANY more wins this basho, let alone steal one from someone in the yusho hunt. (8:15)
M3 Onosho (7–2) vs. M1 Kotoshogiku (5–4)—Onosho lost his second match yesterday, and he did so looking like an over-anxious, over-confident rookie . . . which pretty much is what he is. He may have looked like a veteran during Week 1, but the truth is that he’s still learning the ropes here in the Makuuchi Division. Still, he’s shown us he CAN perform against tough competition and in tough situations. Today he gets to show us if he can do that the pressure is on and he truly NEEDS to. Kotoshogiku started the tournament looking like the ozeki he until recently was. But after four straight wins, he suffered four straight losses and is still fighting only a little better than even. In point of fact, he’s still fighting to get his kachi-koshi while Onosho is fighting for a chance at the tournament title . . . which cause is more compelling? And which rikishi wants the victory more? (9:53)
Komusubi Tochiozan (3–6) vs. ozeki Goeido (8–1)—Goeido has sole possession of the tournament lead for the first time. His fate rests in his own hands. As long as he keeps winning, no one can catch him. But he hasn’t been looking very confident, and recently has taken advantage of opponents who were either inexperienced or injured. Today the man standing in his way is Tochiozan, who  has been struggling a bit this basho. He’s been moving pretty well, but hasn’t been able to generate enough power to notch wins at this level of competition. Can he summon the strength to topple the ozeki? (14:10)
M5 Takakeisho (5–4) vs. yokozuna Harumafuji (6–3)—Harumafuji seems to be back in the groove after some major missteps in Week 1. It would take a lot of rikishi making several mistakes each to get him back into yusho contention, but he can still play the role of spoiler. All of the competitors must come through him on their way to senshuraku and a possible date with the Emperor’s Cup.  (15:10)

SUMO: 2017 Aki Basho (Day 9)

Here we go, Week 2 of the 2017 Aki Basho, the strangest sumo tournament I’ve ever seen. We start the week with three co-leaders with 7–1 records—ozeki Goeido, M3 Onosho, and M12 Daishomaru–and it’s difficult to say for sure how the week ahead looks for them.

Usually, Week 2 for an ozeki means lots of matches against fellow ozeki and all of the yokozuna, and in most recent basho that meant six very tough matches. But Goeido is the only ozeki remaining in the tournament, and Harumafuji is the only yokozuna—all the others have gone kyujo [absent due to injury], and that means that this could be a relatively easy weak for Goeido, with a match against Harumafuji on senshuraku. But if Harumafuji drops out for any reason (most likely because he’s amassed too many losses and goes kyujo to save face) then Goeido might not have to face anymore strong competition for the rest of the tournament.

The same is true for Onosho, who fought all of the available top-level rikishi in Week 1, and beat all of them (with the exception of Goeido, who handed the M3 his only loss so far). Week 2 for someone ranked at his level is usually filled with matches against opponents ranked around his own level. Onosho, in this case, is performing well above his ranking, and so ought to have a fairly easy time of it.

Of course, Onosho is very inexperienced (this is only his third tournament in the Makuuchi Division) and Goeido has a well-earned reputation for losing matches he really shouldn’t. It’s easy to forget that Goeido is kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] this tournament because he couldn’t even manage to get kachi-koshi in July (something he seems to do two or three times every year). On top of that, the third co-leader Daishomaru, ranked as he is in the bottom third of the banzuke, is even MORE unpredictable. His results have been good so far, but he hasn’t really dominated his opponents . . . and he’s only going to face stiffer competition if he keeps his winning streak going. So as well placed as all the co-leaders are, I have no real confidence that they’re going to capitalize on these opportunities. 

That having been said, who are the rikishi that are lurking one win off the pace at 6–2? Well, unsurprisingly they’re also a bunch of journeymen rikishi who have only ever rarely had their names mentioned in conjunction with a yusho [tournament championship] race—M3 Chiyotairu, M9 Takanoiwa, M9 Arawashi, and M11 Daieisho. And since this has been such an unpredictable tournament, let’s see who’s in the next tier with 5–3. That group consists of yokozuna Harumafuji, M5 Takakeisho, M6 Ichinojo, M7 Chiyonokuni, M8 Takarafuji, M14 Endo, and M16 Asanoyama.

I can’t wait to see how Week 2 unfurls, so let’s get to the action. 

<<NOTE: Sorry, but I left my match of the day notes in the office, and I’m too tired to reproduce them. You’ll have to watch the whole video and make up your own minds about which matches are the best.>>

SUMO: 2017 Aki Basho Nakabi [Middle Day] (Day 8)

Here we are at nakabi [the middle day] of the 15-day Aki Basho [Autumn Grand Sumo Tournament], and what a Week 1 we had. There are four rikishi atop the leaderboard with 6–1 records—ozeki Goeido, M3 Onosho, M11 Daieisho, and M12 Daishomaru. Three of the four yokozuna are out of the tournament kyujo [absent due to injury], and the fourth—Harumafuji—is currently 4–3 and only one or two more losses away from joining them, if only to save face. What’s more, two of the three ozeki are also kyujo. (As an interesting note, it’s been 99 years since 3 yokozuna and 2 ozeki have been kyujo in the same basho, making this literally a once-in-a-century tournament.)

With the exception of Goeido, the names of our leaders might be fairly unfamiliar to you. In Onosho’s case, that’s particularly understandable as this is only his third tournament competing in sumo’s top division. He went 10–5 in both of his previous tournaments and seems poised to do that well or better here. In fact, it’s possible that he might technically qualify for promotion to ozeki if he does well enough in this basho. (“Well enough” being 13 or more wins.)

At this point you’d have to say that Onosho and Goeido are pretty much the two most likely candidates to take the yusho [tournament championship]. Both of them have comparatively easier schedules in Week 2 (in Goeido’s case because so many of the challenges he’d normally have to face are obviated because of the number of kyujo cases amongst the top rikishi). But I have a feeling that things are going to be more interesting than that. I think that both these two and their co-leaders will begin to feel the pressure of being in the lead and take on another couple of losses, which would bring a host of other rikishi into the yusho race. When we finally get around to the end of senshuraku [the final day], I think we’re going to wind up with three or more rikishi TIED for the lead, and then we’ll get to see a playoff of one type or another. (In sumo, playoffs can have very different rules based on how many competitors there are.)

But there are eight days worth of sumo between now and then (including today’s) . . . and almost anything could happen. Should make for some very interesting viewing!

Speaking of interesting, word is that M2 Aoiyama, who had a break-out basho in July but injured his leg and has been kyujo for the entirety of this basho so far, is actually going to rejoin the action today. I’m at something of a loss to explain this, as there is practically NO upside for the Bulgarian rikishi. He’s already missed seven days, so as soon as he loses one match he’ll be make-koshi [majority of losses] and guaranteed a demotion. What’s more, he didn’t do any serious warm-up training before the tournament (because of his injury) so he’s coming in cold and is likely to lose a lot more than just one match, plus that also makes him more likely to re-injure himself. The only thing I can think of is that he thinks he’s ready to take on the leaders and can somehow make himself look good by playing the role of the spoiler, hopefully diminishing the number of spots he gets demoted on November’s banzuke. Even before seeing him step onto the dohyo, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this is a BAD idea for him, and he should go back to being kyujo before he hurts himself more seriously.

Here are the best of today’s matches:

M11 Daieisho (6–1) vs. M14 Okinoumi (4–3)—Co-leader Daieisho looks to maintain his share of the lead, facing off today against Okinoumi. What the heck is wrong with Okinoumi? He’s skilled enough to be completely dominating at this level of the banzuke . . .  and yet he’s still struggling to get more wins than losses. In a normal basho, I’d say that Okinoumi would make short work of Daieisho, but given how things are going here in the Aki Basho, I have to call this a coin toss. (0:46)
M12 Daishomaru (6–1) vs. M10 Takekaze (2–5)—Co-leader Daishomaru also faces a once-strong rikishi who is currently struggling in the bottom half of the division. Takekaze, though, at the age of 38 may well just be nearing the natural end of his very successful year. Also a coin toss. (1:33)
M1 Tochinoshin (1–6) vs. M3 Onosho (6–1)—Normally, I’d say that this would be a match to look forward to. But it’s clear that Tochinoshin’s right leg is barely holding him up, and as long as opponents press him from that angle, he’s got practically no hope. However, if an opponent slips up and lets Tochinoshin get inside using his left leg as a pillar, he’s got the power to manhandle just about anyone. With the kind of sumo that Onosho is showing as a co-leader, I don’t expect him to make such a foolish error. (4:55)
M4 Shohozan (4–3) vs. sekiwake Yoshikaze (3–4)—Two scrappy rikishi who always seem to have nasty, angry, street-fighter style matches. That’s always worth tuning in for, no matter who you’re rooting for. (8:35)
Komusubi Tamawashi (3–4) vs. ozeki Goeido (6–1)—Tamawashi is having a mediocre tournament so far, and he’s trying to get a big win to carry him forward into Week 2. Goeido, though he looked weak and lazy in the first few days of the tournament, now is fighting stronger and with confidence, and remains one of the co-leaders. It’s hard to say which version of each rikishi will show up today . . . but if it’s the “A” version on both sides, this should be the match of the day. (10:05)
M2 Aoiyama (0–0–7) vs. yokozuna Harumafuji (4–3)—Aoiyama is back, though I’m really not sure why. If he loses today, he’ll already be make-koshi. We have no idea how his legs are, so we’ll just have to wait and see. Meanwhile, Harumafuji is looking better the past few days and is starting to perform like the tournament’s lone yokozuna should.  (11:15)

SUMO: 2017 Aki Basho (Day 7)

It’s Day 7 of the Aki Basho, and with ozeki Goeido finally stopping M3 Onosho’s winning streak—something even yokozuna Harumafuji failed to do—there are now four rikishi atop the leaderboard with 5–1 records. None of them, though, are particularly familiar names. They are ozeki Goeido, M3 Onosho, M11 Daieisho, and M12 Daishomaru.

Okay, Goeido is a pretty familiar name . . . but it’s one we’re more used to seeing tied to a race for kachi-koshi [majority of wins] than one for the yusho [tournament championship]. In fact, since Goeido is still kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion], getting eight wins is more important that contending for the yusho, though the two are closely linked. 

The thing is, Onosho has now faced all of the really tough opponents that he has to. There’s still kokusubi Tochiozan on his schedule, but he’s having an absolutely terrible tournament. At this point, it is not inconceivable that Onosho just steamrolls the Maegashira-ranked opponents left for him to face, finishing the tournament with a 14–1 record and winning his first Emperor’s Cup in just his third tournament in sumo’s highest division. That’s easier said than done . . . but the challenge is mostly in Onosho’s own head at the moment. He’s overcome the hardest of the physical challenges.

Actually, with former sanyaku rikishi like M1 Tochinoshin, M4 Shohozan, M5 Shodai, and M6 Ichinojo still lurking out there as possible opponents, Onosho still has the possibility of serious physical challenges to come. But with rankings being what they are, he won’t have to deal with the mental pressure of being the underdog.

Today’s top matches include:

M12 Daishomaru (5–1) vs. M15 Tokushoryu (1–5)—Co-leader Daishomaru gets a relatively easy opponent today (even considering his low ranking). Tokushoryu is ranked even lower and is having a terrible tournament. (1:40)
M11 Daieisho (5–1) vs. M15 Sadonoumi (0–1–5)—Co-leader Daieisho gets only a slightly more challenging opponent. Sadonoumi is also ranked very low, but is freshly returned from kyujo [absence due to injury or illness], so his legs are fresher. (3:15)
M7 Chiyonokun (4–2) vs. M9 Arawashi (4–2)—These rikishi are both having decent enough tournaments and seem to be on their way to kachi-koshi performances. Today, though, they meet each other . . . and neither one wants to give an inch. (5:40)
M9 Takanoiwa (4–2) vs. M6 Kagayaki 1–5)—This match is a good example that ALL of the rikishi here in the upper division have a great deal of skill, determination, and pluck. No matter what their banzuke number or current record, anytime two rikishi get themselves focused and in the proper rhythm, they can put in a top flight performance.  (6:55)
M2 Hokutofuji (3–3) vs. M3 Onosho (5–1)—Co-leader Onosho lost his first match yesterday. Can he shake off the disappointment and get himself back into the groove he’s been in most of Week 1? (10:20)
M5 Shodai (4–2) vs. ozeki Goeido (5–1)—The question for me is which Goeido are we going to see today? The one who goes toe-to-toe with his opponent and muscles his way forward with grim determination, or the one who resorts to trick plays simply because he needs a win no matter what? (13:25)

SUMO: 2017 Aki Basho (Day 6)

It’s Day 6 of the Aki Basho. We’re heading into the middle weekend and there’s only one rikishi undefeated atop the leaderboard. Sounds familiar, no? I mean, clearly that rikishi is yokozuna Hakuho . . . except Hakuho has been kyujo [absent due to injury] for the whole tournament. So clearly it must be one of the three other yokozuna . . . except that both Kisenosato and Kakuryu are also kyujo, and Harumafuji is struggling with a 2–3 record. Neither is our leader an ozeki (they’re in similar shape to the yokozuna) nor even a sekiwake or kaomusubi. No, the lone 5-0 rikishi, sole leader of the 2017 Aki Basho is none other than M3 Onosho, who is fighting in just his THIRD EVER tournament in the top division. Let me say that again, the leader going into the weekend has more Week 1 wins than he has Makuuchi tournaments he’s competed in.

What kind of a crazy tournament IS this?!?

Well, for one thing, it’s one that’s going to continue with one fewer ozeki, because after wrenching his knee in his Day 5 loss to M4 Shohozan, Terunofuji has announced that he is kyujo and will miss the rest of the tournament. Since he started the Aki Basho kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion], that means that he will be dropped to sekiwake in November, when he’ll have a one-time chance to regain his ozeki rank by getting 10 or more wins. Should he fail to do so, he’ll become a rank-and-file rikishi again and have to re-earn his way into sumo’s second-highest rank.

We saw this happen to Kotoshogiku earlier this year. The big difference is that Terunofuji is only 25 years old, and still has most of his career ahead of him. He has time to finally take a few tournaments off, drop down the banzuke, really let his knee heal, and then make a new assault at the big time. (We’ve been watching him struggle with knee injuries for so long, it’s difficult to remember that it was just in the Aki Basho 2015 that pundits were talking about Terunofuji’s near-certain promotion to yokozuna and whether he would quickly replace Hakuho as the sport’s dominant force.) Honestly, I think that the WORST thing that could happen to Terunofuji would be for him to only partially heal, but somehow succeed in regaining his rank in November. He clearly needs to take a significant period of time off just to heal.

On the other side of the kyujo list, M12 Sadonoumi, who began by sitting out the tournament, has rejoined the competition here on Day 6. He begins with a 0–0–5 record and has a tough slog to win eight out of ten matches in order to avoid being demoted down to Juryo. I’ve read no word about how he’s doing physically, but one can guess that if he loses more than 4 matches, he’ll go kyujo again and begin recuperating for November.

One rikishi still in the hunt so far, but almost certainly destined to go kyujo if his fortunes don’t improve, is yokozuna Harumafuji. He’s 2–3 so far, and it is generally true that once a yokozuna loses 5 bouts in a basho he claims some kind of injury in order to avoid embarrassing his rank. The way Harumafuji has performed the last two days, it’s easy to imagine that he’ll hit that mark by early next week, though it’s unclear whether there’s actually anything physically wrong with him. With all the other yokozuna absent, it must be weighing heavy on his mind that he’s putting in such a weak performance. This SHOULD have been his tournament to shine, instead it’s still Week 1 and he’s currently out of contention for the yusho [tournament championship].

On the other hand, M4 Onosho continues to put in a performance much stronger than I ever gave him credit for having in him. He was dominant in his win over Harumafuji on Thursday, and shows no signs of slowing down. At this point, he only has ozeki Goeido left to face among the top rankers, and that match happens today. After that he’ll have komusubi Tochiozan to face, and the rest of his opponents will all be Maegashira ranked rikishi. If Onosho can beat the ozeki today, the yusho will be his to lose.

As I said, what kind of tournament IS this?!?

If nothing else, it’s an unpredictable one! And I can’t wait to see what happens next! Let’s look at today’s top matches.

J2 Aminishiki (3–2) vs. J3 Kotoyuki (4–1)—We start with a Juryo match between two familiar faces that are trying to earn their way back into the top division. Aminishiki is trying to become the oldest rikishi ever to be promoted from Juryo to the Makuuchi Division. He’s got a well deserved reputation for being cagey . . . even wily. His opponent blasted his way up to the sanyaku ranks last year, but came tumbling back down this year. Kotoyuki has an explosive tachi-ai [initial charge] and formidable thrusting attacks, but in the past those have been his ONLY strategies, making him predictable and vulnerable to anyone with the skills to turn his aggressive ways against him. (0:15)
M12 Daishomaru (4–1) vs. M16 Asanoyama (3–2)—Daishomaru fell off the leaderboard with a loss yesterday, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s having a terrific tournament. And ranked in the bottom part of the banzuke, he may well be able to just pick up where he left off and stay in the hunt for the yusho. Unless the loss has shaken his confidence and broken his magic spell. (2:10)
M11 Daieisho (4–1) vs. M9 Arawashi (4–1)—Two rikishi who were undefeated until yesterday . . . now only one of them can get back on the winning track. (4:50)
Sekiwake Mitakeumi (2–3) vs. M1 Kotoshogiku (4–1)—Kotoshogiku got handed his first loss yesterday, but he still looked strong and focused. He’ll need both those traits against Mitakeumi, who is looking to turn his basho around. It wouldn’t surprise me to find these two in the yusho hunt all the way to senshuraku [the final day], and the result of this match may spell the difference. (10:25)
Komusubi Tochiozan (1–4) vs. sekiwake Yoshikaze (1–4)—In a basho where most of the yokozuna and ozeki are out of the running, it’s SUPPOSED to be the sekiwake and komusubi who lead the pack. But both of these two rikishi have had terrible trouble just notching a single win. One of them will for sure get their second win today, but they’re BOTH going to have to do MUCH better in Week 2 if they want to hold on to their sanyaku ranks. (11:35)
M3 Onosho (5–0) vs. ozeki Goeido (4–1)—This is clearly the match of the day. Onosho has faced just about every other high-performing rikishi above him on the banzuke, and beaten them all. If he can beat Goeido today, he’ll put himself in the position of being alone atop the leaderboard with only secondary challenger to face for the remaining nine days of the tournament. The yusho will be his to lose. On the other hand, Goeido finally stepped up and showed us some ozeki-level sumo yesterday. He needs four more wins to secure his kachi-koshi [majority of wins] and save himself from his current kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] status. (12:50)
M3 Chiyotairyu (4–1) vs. yokozuna Harumafuji (2–3)—Chiyotairyu was another of the co-leaders who fell yesterday and is trying to regain his momentum. On the other hand, Harumafuji has lost three straight matches, something that almost never happens, and he’s looking to make a point as the lone yokozuna remaining in the competition. If Harumafuji loses today, expect him to go kyujo tomorrow, if only to save face. But if he can win today, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him run the next nine matches and finish out the tournament with a 12–3 record. (14:05)

SUMO: 2017 Aki Basho (Day 5)

It’s Day 5 of the Aki Basho, and we’re down to only five undefeated rikishi. That isn’t so strange, but the fact that NONE of those five are sanyaku . . . THAT is VERY strange. Sitting pretty with 4–0 records are M1 Kotoshogiku, M3 Onosho, M3 Chiyotairyu, M9 Takanoiwa, and M11 Daieisho. After that, there are only six rikishi with 3–1 records . . . and only ONE of those is sanyaku—ozeki Goeido, who has used a henka TWICE in the first four days (very un-ozeki-like sumo). Goeido is kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] so he MUST be kachi-koshi [majority of wins] this tournament, and that’s probably what’s got him pulling trick plays so early in the basho.

This really is a weird tournament. It all starts with and stems from the fact that the three top yokozuna have been kyujo [absent due to injury] the whole time. That left a window open for other rikishi to challenge for the yusho [tournament championship], but it’s also left the proceedings without the sense of stability that having a cadre of strong, reliable, dominant presences at the top of the banzuke [ranking list] provides. The whole tournament feels like the wild west (again, see Goeido’s early henkas as evidence), and the rikishi seem to be struggling to fill the shoes of the missing yokozuna.
I’m most disappointed in ozeki Terunofuji, who seems to be healthy enough (a rarity in the past year) but is moving uncomfortably in the ring and keeps getting outmaneuvered by opponents that he should just blast off the dohyo. Yokozuna Harumafuji looked good on Days 1 and 2, but his unfortunate loss due to a terrible non-call on Day 3 may have shaken his spirit, because he got out-maneuvered and out-hustled yesterday in his loss to M2 Hokutofuji. Of course, Harumafuji has a history of taking one bad loss during Week 1 . . . so it’s entirely possible that he can get back on track today.

This doesn’t seem to be a tournament where the winning tally will be especially impressive—I’d guess that the yusho will go to someone with only a 12–3 or maybe even 11–4 record, so there’s still time for ALL of the rikishi to get back into the mix. But that window of opportunity is closing quickly as the middle weekend approaches.

M11 Daieisho (4–0) vs. M12 Chiyomaru (2–2)—Daeisho is one of our current co-leaders, so it’s worth checking in on him down near the bottom of the banzuke [ranking sheet]. His position is a little tough to gauge because he’s likely to have the easiest draw, against low-ranked opponents, but he’s not someone who has been in this kind of situation before, so we have no idea how he’ll react to the opportunity/pressure. Will he step up and dominate his peers? Or will the gravity of his potential cause him to lock up, and let the chance slip away? (3:00)
M9 Takanoiwa (4–0) vs. M9 Arawashi (3–1)—Takanoiwa is one of the co-leaders who HAS some experience with the pressure that comes with fighting alongside the best in the game. In the past he’s been ranked as high as Maegashira 2, so he knows what it’s like to face the sanyaku ranks and NEED to perform under pressure in order just to hold your spot on the banzuke. Of course, his opponent today ALSO has been ranked as high as M2, and also has lots of experience fighting under pressure. Sounds like the makings of a good match. (4:00)
M5 Shodai (2–2) vs. M1 Kotoshogiku (4–0)—What the heck is up with Kotoshogiku this tournament? It’s like somebody set his internal clock back to 2014! He’s beaten two ozeki, a yokozuna, and a sekiwake so far this tournament. In fact, Shodai is the first non-sanyaku rikishi he’s faced the whole basho. Of course, even back in 2014, Kotoshogiku was unreliable, never able to keep putting out his best performance day after day, so it seems likely he’ll slip somewhere along the way. But he’s showing no sign of weakness yet.  (7:35)
M3 Chiyotairyu (4–0) vs. ozeki Goeido (3–1)—Chiyotairyu has put on about 13 kg (29 lbs) since July, and he’s been making good use of it so far. Of course, today he has to square off against an ozeki. Personally, I’m ticked off at Goeido for choosing to henka in BOTH of his wins. I understand that he’s kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] and NEEDS to get 8 wins . . . but to me all he’s doing is showing a lack of confidence in himself to fall back on trick maneuvers this early in the tournament. It’s like he thinks without the henka he won’t get his kachi-koshi [majority of wins]. But if that’s the case, then he really doesn’t deserve to be an ozeki anymore. He’s still six wins away. Let’s see if he can nab them while fighting like a true ozeki. (11:15)
M3 Onosho (4–0) vs. yokozuna Harumafuji (2–2)—I’ll admit it, I really thought that Onosho was going to go into the tank this basho and come away with a disappointing-but-educational make-koshi [majority of losses] . . . but he’s proving me wrong. Yesterday he had his first ever match against an ozeki, and he won. Today he has his first ever match against a yokozuna, and I’m not prepared to count him out. On the other hand, while Harumafuji has a habit of being sloppy during Week 1 of a tournament, he almost never loses three matches in a row . . . and that’s what it would take for Onosho to win the match. If you’d asked me about this match-up before the tournament started, I’d have given strong odds in the yokozuna’s favor. Now, though, I think Harumafuji is just a slight favorite. (14:20)

SUMO: 2017 Aki Basho (Day 4)

Day 4 of the Aki Basho dawns with a resounding, “YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME!!” At least, that’s still what I’m thinking after the way yokozuna Harumafuji lost his match due to a non-call of his pretty clear matta [false start]. But in sumo, once the match begins you have to go full bore until the gyoji [referee] tells you otherwise . . . and Harumafuji was so sure that he’d jumped the gun that he just stopped putting up any resistance, allowing M1 Kotoshogiku to just walk him out of the ring and into the one-loss column.

Seriously, this was a terrible non-call. But even WORSE is the non-call by the ringside judge who didn’t call for a rematch. I have to think that it was political and manipulative of the overall basho. Harumafuji, after all, was looking very strong and could well have run away with the entire yusho [tournament championship]. This result knocks him back into the pack chasing the undefeated leaders and adds drama to the whole tournament.

In any case, Harumafuji now has a loss . . . while Kotoshogiku unbelievably is still undefeated and has beaten a yokozuna and two ozeki. This really is a tournament where ANYTHING could happen. So let’s just go ahead and look at today’s top matches

M14 Endo (2–1) vs. M15 Yutakayama (1–2)—Despite nearly dropping out before the basho even started, Endo is holding his own in the first few days. He hasn’t looked his best, but he also doesn’t seem like a member of the walking wounded. He’s also benefiting from the fact that he’s facing the least seasoned of the rikishi on the basho. That’s certainly true today, as this is Yutakayama’s first basho ever in the top division. Smart sumo is doubly effective against inexperienced opponents. (0:50)
M11 Daieisho (3–0) vs. M13 Kaisei (2–1)—Kaisei may be back in the top division, but he hasn’t overcome his “two versions” problem. On days when Kaisei version 1 shows up, he’s dominant and looks like someone who belongs at the top of the banzuke. When Kaisei version 2 mounts the dohyo, though, he looks like he’ll be headed right back down to Juryo when this tournament is done. Daieisho, on the other hand, has looked quite strong in his first three matches. If he keeps this up, he could be one of the dark horse yusho contenders. (3:05)
Sekiwake Mitakeumi (1–2) vs. komusubi Tamawashi (1–2)—Mitakeumi managed to notch his first win yesterday. It’s odd, because he hasn’t looked bad previously, just out of step . . . like he COULD have won all three, but he got some bad breaks. I’m suspicious of that kind of thing in sumo, because it too often turns into an entire “unlucky” tournament and really is the mark that something subtle is wrong in the rikishi’s performance. He needs to turn this into a winning streak and make this a strong tournament if he wants a shot at the yusho.  (8:30)
M1 Kotoshogiku (3–0) vs. sekiwake Yoshikaze (0–3)—Who would have predicted that having faced two ozeki and a yokozuna, Kotoshogiku would be undefeated on Day 4. More likely, you’d predict he’d be winless . . . but that’s why they fight the fights. He’s looking strong, and he’s already beaten his toughest competition. This is quickly becoming a good chance for him to add a second yusho to his trophy cabinet. But Yoshikaze is the kind of opponent that can give Kotoshogiku big trouble—quick, clever, and with a long history of toppling top-ranked opposition. (9:35)
Ozeki Terunofuji (1–2) vs. M3 Onosho (3–0)—Terunofuji notched his first win on Day 3, and really wants to get his game on solid ground. He’s kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] this basho, so he NEEDS to win eight matches . . . and the first week is when he faces his easiest competition. Meanwhile, Onosho is looking like a champion already—strong, confident, and quick off the tachi-ai [initial charge]. This should be a very good match. (10:40)
M2 Hokutofuji (2–1) vs. yokozuna Harumafuji (2–1)—Harumafuji had a win flat out stolen from him yesterday. That’s tough to handle in a sport where all performance is measured solely in wins and losses. He’s got to shake it off and get back to the kind of sumo he did on Days 1 and 2.  (12:15)

SUMO: 2017 Aki Basho (Day 3)

It’s Day 3 of the Aki Basho, and things just keep getting wilder. It started with all but one of the yokozuna (plus several other big-name rikishi) announcing they were kyujo [absent due to injury] for the whole tournament. Then six of the eight sanyaku rikishi who WERE competing all LOST on Day 1 of the basho. Followed on Day 2 by one of the remaining unbeaten sanyaku losing, too. Plus three of the top rikishi suffering injuries that could put them on the kyujo list, too. And we still haven’t even begun the matches for Day 3.

Wow! There’s a lot of craziness going on, but let’s take a minute and look at some aspects of the first couple of days that have gone well.

To begin with, yokozuna Harumafuju—the ONLY yokozuna competing in the tournament—has been looking strong and healthy. He’s faced two tough opponents in komusubi Tochiozan and M1 Tochinoshin, and beat them both without working up a sweat. Considering how shaky Harumafuji has looked earlier this year, this is a terrific sign that he is feeling healthy and is ready to put in a strong run for his first yusho [tournament championship] since July of last year.

M1 Kotoshogiku, the former ozeki who in recent tournaments has looked like he might be heading toward a quick retirement has started the Aki Basho with two wins, both of them over current ozeki—Goeido and Terunofuji. Kotoshogiku is getting off the tachi-ai [initial charge] quickly and is showing the spirited bumping/thrusting sumo that made him a mainstay at sumo’s highest rank for five years. It’s unlikely he’ll ever recover his old rank, but if he continues to fight like this, he could get promoted back into sanyaku and stay there for an indefinite period.

M3 Onosho was one of the big surprises in July’s Nagoya Basho, finishing his second tournament in a row with double-digit wins. Having been promoted this high for the first time in his career, there was very real uncertainty as to whether he would be able to continue to be a strong competitor against sumo’s best practitioners . . . but he’s won both of his first two matches, and looked dominant against both sekiwake—Mitakeumi and Yoshikaze. He seems to be the real deal, and if he can keep this up he may well be the next rikishi to make a run at promotion to ozeki. (In fact, if he manages to get thirteen or more wins this tournament, he could technically qualify for the promotion before November’s Kyushu Basho . . . which would be the fastest ascent to that rank in sumo history.)

On the other hand, some rikishi have started off poorly. There are a slew of big name rikishi who have started the tournament 0–2, including ozeki Terunofuji, sekiwake Mitakeumi, sekiwake Yoshikaze, komusubi Tochiozan, M1 Tochinoshin, M6 Ichinojo, and M6 Kagayaki. In a tournament where Hakuho, Kisenosato, and Kakuryu are absent, these winless rikishi seem to be squandering a golden opportunity to legitimately compete for the yusho.

UPDATE: Two of the three rikishi who were injured yesterday have decided that kyujo [withdrawal due to injury] is best for them. Ozeki Takayasu has a right thigh muscle injury that will take three weeks to heal, meaning that he will be kadoban (threatened with ozeki demotion] in November. Meanwhile, M4 Ura aggravated the knee injury he suffered last basho and will be out for an indeterminate period of time.

Now let’s look at today’s top matches.

M15 Tokushoryu (0–2) vs. J2 Aminishiki (2–0)—With all the injuries in the top division, rikishi from the Juryo Division are being brought up to fill out the each day’s matches. Today, the lucky fellow is Aminishiki, who until last year was the oldest competitor in the Makuuchi division . . . but injury sent him sliding down the banzuke [ranking sheet], and he’s been fighting his way back up ever since. Now he’s ranked at J2, and if he gets his kachi-koshi [majority of wins] this basho, he’s likely to be promoted back up to the top division in November. Promoted to the top division at the age of 39, making him the oldest rikishi ever to achieve that promotion. But he’s got to get eight or more wins first . . . and today he’s getting a taste of what it’s like back in the big league again. (0:50)
M9 Takanoiwa (2–0) vs. M10 Ishiura (1–1)—Ishiura continues to do his kind of scrappy sumo and try to prove that a small, muscular rikishi can still make it in the top division among the behemoths and giants. Win or lose, he’s always fun to watch. Today he’s facing Takanoiwa, who has had three disappointing tournaments in a row and is trying to get things turned around (and a 2–0 start is a good way to do it). (4:30)
Komusubi Tamawashi (1–1) vs. M3 Onosho (2–0)—On Days 1 and 2, Onosho beat both sekiwake. Today he goes up against a komusubi. So far he’s looking every bit as fierce, fearless, and talented as can be. If he can keep this up, he will put himself in a very good position to contend for the yusho [tournament championship] in just his third tournament in the top division. Tamawashi, on the other hand, twisted his ankle yesterday in his win over ozeki Takayasu, and we weren’t even sure he’d be able to climb up onto the dohyo today, let alone compete . . . but here he is. That’s two tough customers, which generally means exciting sumo. (9:05)
Sekiwake Mitakeumi (0–2) vs. M4 Shohozan (2–0)—Before the tournament started, I picked Mitakeumi as my choice to win the yusho. Now here we are on Day 3 and he hasn’t even won a single match. Hopefully he can turn that around against Shohozan, whose left eye is still very swollen from the head-bump he took at the Day 1 tachi-ai [initial charge] against Tamawashi. Mitakeumi isn’t out of the competition yet by any means . . . but he MUST start winning, or he will be. (10:25)
Ozeki Terunofuji (0–2) vs. M1 Tochinoshin (0–2)—Two big, powerful, bullish rikishi who haven’t managed a win yet between them. There’s going to be a lot of grunting and flexing, and one of them is guaranteed to get a win before it’s all over.  (11:55)
M1 Kotoshogiku (2–0) vs. yokozuna Harumafuji (2–0)—Harumafuji is looking healthy, strong, and most of all fast. He’s set himself up as the man to beat this tournament not just because he’s the only remaining yokozuna, but because he’s fighting so well. On the other hand, Kotoshogiku has started the tournament by beating two ozeki opponents, and hasn’t looked this strong and focused since the Hatsu Basho [New Year’s Tournament] in 2016 when he won the yusho. And in that tournament, Kotoshogiku completely manhandled Harumafuji.  (13:40)

SUMO: 2017 Aki Basho (Day 2)

Here’s something I’ve never been able to say at the start of Day 2 of a hon-basho [sumo grand tournament]: Only two undefeated contestants remain among the sanyaku ranked rikishi. “Sanyaku,” for those who don’t know, are the named ranks atop sumo’s top division. The Makuuchi division consists of 30–32 Maegashira rikishi split into paired ranks (two M1, two M2, and so on down to M16, whose numbers depend on how many are needed to fill out the tournament draw evenly). Above them are the regulated “sanyaku” ranks—a pair of komusubi, a pair of sekiwake—and then the unregulated ozeki and yokozuna. These last two are champion level rankings and must be earned by putting in uniformly excellent performances over the course of a year or more. 

So what I’m saying is that the sanyaku rikishi are the best in the sport . . . and all but two of them lost on Day 1 yesterday. The only two winners were yokozuna Harumafuji and ozeki Takayasu. Of course, the three other yokozuna—Hakuho, Kisenosato, and Kakuryu—didn’t lose . . . rather they are skipping the tournament entirely because of injuries. Still, with their absence, one expects the sanyaku rikishi to step up and show how dominant they can be, particularly in the first week of the tournament before they start having to fight against each other. But on Day 1 six of the eight sanyaku rikishi lost to lesser opponents (except for komusubi Tochiozan, who lost to Harumafuji).

The last few tournaments have been fairly unorthodox in how they unfolded . . . but I feel safe in saying that this Aki Basho is going to bring a new level of wild unpredictability to the sport. We’ll get to see the best of the up and coming rikishi trying to  show how they can shine when the big stars are off the marquee. 

Now let’s look at the top matches from Day 2.

M7 Ikioi (1–0) vs. M6 Kagayaki (0–1)—A couple of big, strong rikishi who have struggled of late, but are trying to turn their fortunes around this basho. Ikioi got off to a good start by beating M8 Chiyoshoma, while Kagayaki lost his opening match to M7 Chionokuni. They both looked a little stiff, but very game. We’ll see how they look facing each other today. (4:20)
M6 Shodai (0–1) vs. M6 Ichinojo (0–1)—Based on his Day 1 match, Ichinojo seems to be back to his old style of relying on size and weight rather than using any particular sumo skill. That’s bad for him, but allows an opening for Shodai to overcome his Day 1 loss to slippery Ura. Certainly, Ichinojo won’t try anything as clever or unexpected as the tottari [arm bar throw] that Ura used. He’ll just lumber his 206 kilos (454 lbs.) straight ahead. The question is whether Shodai has an answer for a problem that massive. (4:55)
M5 Takakeisho (1–0) vs. M4 Ura (1–0)—On Day 1 Ura looked a little unsteady on his feet (perhaps not fully healed from the injury he suffered near the end of July’s Nagoya Basho), but still was clever and nimble enough to outmaneuver a much bigger opponent in M6 Shodai. He’ll have to do something similar today if he wants to beat Takakeisho, who has a 4–1 lead in their previous meetings. (6:15)
M3 Onosho (1–0) vs. sekiwake Yoshikaze (0–1)—Onosho looked fit and full of energy as he beat sekiwake Mitakeumi on Day 1. Today he’s facing the other sekiwake—“giant killer” Yoshikaze. The two have only fought once before, that having been in the previous basho, and Onosho managed to win that bout. Can he make it two in a row? (8:10)
Ozeki Takayasu (1–0) vs. komusubi Tamawashi (0–1)—Takayasu looked pretty strong yesterday in his win over M1 Tochinoshin, making him one of just two sanyaku rikishi to notch a victory on Day 1. But historically he’s had trouble against today’s opponent, Tamawashi (who leads their lifetime series 4–1). If he wants to prove himself to be a strong ozeki, though, Takayasu has to find a way to gain dominance over old rivals. (9:55)
ozeki Terunofuji (0–1) vs. M1 Kotoshogiku (1–0)—Kotoshogiku looked rejuvenated in his win yesterday over ozeki Goeido. Of course, he did make use of a slippery not-quite-a-henka sidestep to do so. We now have to wonder if he has what it takes to beat a different ozeki who is aware that a “trick maneuver” may be brought into play. Also, ozeki Terunofuji looked a little lumbering in his Day 1 loss to Hokutofuji. Terunofuji is kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] this basho and must get at least 8 wins in order to retain his rank, so he’s got an added incentive beyond showing up Goeido (who also is kadoban).  (12:10)
M1 Tochinoshin (0–1) vs. yokozuna Harumafuji (1–0)—Harumafuji was the only one of the top rikishi who looked fully sharp and on his game on Day 1. He beat komusubi Tochiozan quickly and decisively. Today he faces the big Georgian, Tochinoshin. If there’s any weakness in the yokozuna’s sumo, Tochinoshin is sure to find it . . . but if HArumafuji really is healthy and strong, he should win with little trouble. (14:40)

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